Do I like them too much? Not necessarily
Andrea Hajek, Glasgow University
I first became interested in oral history after my doctoral thesis, which examined public memories of a violent incident that occurred 35 years ago. I collected some dozen interviews without giving thought to what oral history really entails. I probably didn’t realize I was doing oral history, and made just about every mistake in the book. I particularly recall an occasion where my interviewee broke down and cried as she reminisced about the death of a friend; I then realized I wasn’t just gathering research data, but dealing with a live subject who, at that moment, was in pain. When doing oral history we are not simply extracting information, but also making people relive events and as such have an ‘affective responsibility’ to ‘receive’ their memories in a supportive way. Just like the American Indians’ belief that when you take their picture, you take their soul, we too take something from the interviewee. Or to put it differently, our ‘research frame’ doesn’t necessarily match the interviewee’s ‘memory frame’ (Summerfield 2000, 94), and this poses a dilemma: are we there just to listen, absorb their stories and record the dynamics of remembering, or should we do something more? Should we be their friends?
Research on intersubjectivity has grown over the past decade. In her famous article, ‘Do I like them too much’, Valerie Yow identified increasing awareness from the 1970s of the interactive process of interviewer and narrator, as various disciplines began questioning the ideal of scientific objectivity (2006, 57). Feminist theorists in particular placed a new attention on intersubjectivity, which caused a shift in the ‘paradigm transformations’ of oral history practice (Thomson 2006). Yow concludes: ‘we cannot go about research without questioning ourselves, our biases, our purposes, our reactions to the narrator and the process, and the effects our research have on the narrator’ (62). Lynn Abrams too has pointed out the necessity of acknowledging ‘the intersubjective relationships that are present within the interview situation’ and to think about ‘what impact the self [that the interviewer] projects to the interviewee has had on the resulting testimony (2010, 63).
These intersubjective exchanges are so interesting because they take place at a highly unconscious level. They are the little hints of body language, tone of voice, even style of clothes or home interior. But they don’t take place just during the interview: the style of a prior email or text message may say a lot about the narrator and their willingness to be interviewed, and how they prepare themselves for the interview. These aspects have a huge impact on how the interview develops, as they ‘trigger responses of empathy and antipathy, expansiveness and defensiveness, trust and mistrust, remembering and forgetting, and shape the stories told’ (Summerfield 2000, 103).
I used to believe that with time I have learnt how to read these hints and respond to them, until I recently embarked on what was probably my most unpleasant interview ever. Considering the fact that the interviewee’s emails never exceeded a 15 word limit (including phone number and address), I should have anticipated the disaster. But then I think this can also be productive, as painful as it may be for either interviewer or interviewee. Perhaps we should embrace our subjective selves more actively, and actually encourage discomposure.
Abrams, L. (2010) Oral history theory, London: Routledge.
Summerfield, P. (2000) ‘Intersubjectivities in oral history’, in Cosslett, T., Lury, C. and P. Summerfield (eds), Feminism and Autobiography. London and New York: Routledge, 91-106.
Thomson, A. (2006) ‘Four Paradigm Transformations in Oral History’, The Oral History Review, 34, 1, 49-70.
Yow, V. (2006) ‘Do I Like Them Too Much?’ Effects of the Oral History Interview on the Interviewer and Vice-Versa’, Oral History Review, 24, 1, 54–71.